Kalispell Voters Retain One Incumbent Trustee, Pass Elementary and Reject High School Levy

GOP-endorsed candidates lost races for elementary trustee positions, won in the high school trustee race

By Denali Sagner
The entrance to the Kalispell Public Schools office in downtown Kalispell on Sept. 27, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Voters on Tuesday night delivered a mixed verdict in a Kalispell Public Schools (KPS) election, retaining one incumbent and electing two new candidates to the Board of Trustees, and approving an elementary school general fund levy while rejecting a high school levy.

In a crowded race for two elementary district trustee positions, parental-rights candidates endorsed by the Flathead County Republicans met a resounding defeat –– yet the county GOP’s pick for high school trustee successfully challenged an incumbent. Kalispell Public Schools, while able to pass a general operating fund levy for its elementary schools, struggled again to increase funding for its high schools. The district has not passed a high school levy since 2007.

Kalispell voters elected Jinnifer Mariman (3,538 votes) and incumbent Scott Warnell (3,798 votes) as elementary district trustees.

Shaun Pandina (1,844 votes), Jesse Shulz (1,651 votes) and Patrick Clavin (842 votes) also ran for the elementary district seats. All three candidates were endorsed by the Flathead County Republicans at their April 13 central committee meeting.

Pandina, whose Tuesday night loss marked his second unsuccessful attempt to gain a seat on the school board, has been a fixture at school board meetings in recent years, speaking in opposition to COVID-19 mitigation protocols and in favor of a more robust “constitutional curriculum,” among other issues.

Incumbent trustee Warnell, a former school resource police officer and D.A.R.E. program officer, will begin his second term on the school board this summer. Warnell’s wife is a teacher in the district, and their two children were educated in the Kalispell Public Schools, both graduating from Flathead High School.

Speaking with the Beacon last month about his first term on the board, Warnell emphasized the district’s success in managing the COVID-19 pandemic while keeping school doors open.

“I feel that that was one of the more controversial things we did, but it was also very successful,” Warnell said. “Making sure that kids were still able to get to school, because a lot of kids, that’s where they get their meals, and that’s their safe spot. So the more we’re able to keep the doors open for those kiddos, the better.”

Mariman, who will begin her first term on the board, is an attorney at the McGarvey Law Firm and the mother two KPS students. Mariman and her husband, Gabe, who is the owner of Bias Brewing in downtown Kalispell, have worked on a number of initiatives and boards with both the school district and the city of Kalispell, experiences Mariman said will inform her work as a trustee.

In a conversation with the Beacon, Mariman discussed the school board’s responsibility to hire a new superintendent and to manage growth in the Flathead Valley while continuing to provide adequate resources to students.

“We’ve been really fortunate to have [KPS Superintendent Micah Hill] leading us, but finding the next superintendent is really important, finding someone that is a good fit for our Kalispell community and for what we and what the Board of Trustees have identified as certain goals and priorities for the school system going forward,” she said.

In the election for a high school district trustee representing Marion, West Valley and Smith Valley, Krista Buls (1,085 votes) beat incumbent Will Hiatt (804 votes).

Buls, who was endorsed by the Flathead County Republicans, is a mother to six children who have attended the Kalispell Public Schools. In an email to the Beacon — Buls declined to be interviewed over the phone last month — Buls emphasized parental involvement in children’s education, as well as funding the school district without raising local property taxes.

“My main priorities as a school board member would be advocating for better educational advances for the children and teachers, transparency for the parents to always know what’s happening and what they can expect to happen next, and finding funding for the schools, teachers, and children’s educational needs without increasing the impact on tax dollars,” Buls wrote. “I believe we can find alternative solutions to funding without continuing to raise taxes.”

Buls is married to Dr. Justin Buls, a Kalispell doctor who resigned from a position as the Kalispell supervisor for the Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana program through the University of Montana after promoting content about the COVID-19 vaccine that was flagged as misinformation by Facebook. Dr. Buls is currently the vice chair of the West Valley School Board.

In a press release sent early Wednesday morning, Superintendent Micah Hill thanked the community for supporting the elementary district levy, which passed by 431 votes — a 6% margin.

The high school district general fund levy failed by 2,822 votes, an 18% margin.

“We are also naturally disappointed that the passage of the high school general fund levy fell short as it would have been pivotal in providing very needed resources in serving our students and staff.  We truly believe our high school students are worthy of a supportive community,” Hill wrote.

Elections staff finished counting ballots at 3 a.m. at the Flathead County Election Department office. 15,098 out of 43,511 eligible voters cast ballots, a 34.6% voter turnout. The results of the election will be officially confirmed by the Board of Trustees at their next board meeting.

Kalispell Public Schools Election Results

Elementary District Trustees (2) – 3-Year Term

  • Patrick Clavin: 842
  • Jinnifer Mariman: 3,538
  • Shaun Pandina: 1,844
  • Jesse Shulz: 1,651
  • Scott Warnell: 3,798
  • Write in:  122

High School District Trustee (1) – 3-Year Term (Representing Marion, West Valley, Smith Valley)

  • Krista Buls: 1,085
  • Will Hiatt: 804
  • Write in: 33

Elementary District General Fund Levy ($354,327):  PASSED

  • For:  3,762 (53%) 
  • Against:  3,331 (47%)

High School District General Fund Levy ($2,490,973):  FAILED

  • For:  6,027 (41%) 
  • Against: 8,849 (59%)